from the editor's desk


Review of ‘Archival-Poetics’ by Natalie Harkin

Harkin, Natalie. Archival-Poetics. Vagabond Press, 2019. RRP $30.00, 112pp, ISBN: 9781925735215.

Brenda Saunders

In order to reach their ancestors’ story hidden in State Collections, Aboriginal researchers are forced to troll through the harsh classification methods and dismissive language used by colonial officials. This is powerfully explored by Natalie Harkin, a Narungga artist/poet, in her decolonial project, Archival-Poetics, which unfolds across three small chapbooks packed in a slipcase: The Colonial Archive (1), The Haunting (2), and Blood Memory (3). The three books are themselves divided into numerous sub-sections, many of which are called ‘Memory Lessons’.

Harkin mines the archive to confront the record. She has adopted the contemporary docu-poetry form to interrogate her subject.  She uses elements from both archive and memory to link imagery and poetry with extracts from other sources. The work draws primarily from her Grandmother’s letters and archival documents researched for her PhD at Flinders University, Adelaide, in recent years.

 Archival-Poetics is predominantly text-based, but it isn’t a book/s in the Western literary sense.  It is rather a collage of archival extracts together with the writer’s poetry, artwork, weaving and installation photo-stills (editor: for an example of this work, see this YouTube video). She references as well the writings and artworks of fellow Indigenous artists, who have also created work based on their family histories. All this is packed into three pocket-size books. Due to the reduced scale and quality of both font and photo-image, they are often difficult to access and require further investigation.

Each book begins with a warning prelude. InBook 1, Harkin tells us she wants to repatriate, find ‘something else’ for the record (5). At times she takes a blow torch, excoriating the ‘colonial language’, inventing a counter-narrative, her words broken into static bites and gasps. In ‘Colonial Archive’, she challenges the archival system, writing on a photo from one of her Installations: 



SURVEILLANCE! (7; vol. 1)

Our grandmothers are themselves the holders of culture and story. They pass down the blood and the history, as in the powerful poem, ‘Her Memory Remember’. The use of the forward slash / creates a forceful stress, almost rap-like rhythm:

blood-lessons remember / colonial-archive remember /
oral-history remember / uncanny-haunts remember /
ocean-tides remember / shed-skin remember / new-
imaginings remember / my grandmother remembering /
her memory I remember. (10; vol. 3)

Harkin often uses wide spaces between words and phrases across the page, as if they are ‘found’ patches from something once whole, but now lost, a style developed in her collection Dirty Words (Cordite Books 2015).

She anatomises the language of colonial exploitation and racism as she confronts the file written about her Grandmother by the Governor of the time. ‘Memory Lesson 2, Dear Sir’ is, I believe, the seminal poem in this collection. The language is short, sharp, the breath held in from shock:

I sit between 200 pages                                   she is rarely named
file note archive                                                 simply their ‘girl’
a portion of a life
under state control  
throat tight                                                               their…
catch my breath sharp
                                                   hold it
feel her finger-tips
hear her           ‘husky voice’ described in
inspector Reports

state child
true to type (16; vol. 1)

And continues in ‘Memory Lesson 3, Afloat In The Wake’, as she questions these racist categories found in the archive when First Nations people were/are named and listed according ‘to whiteness:

when they come
                        to claim me    name me   frame me

                                          will they slice me half
                                                  or quarters
                                                        or one sixteenths? (26; vol. 1)

Throughout the collection, Harkin explores women’s work: the traditional craft of Aboriginal grass weaving. She sees this as a metaphor for the drawing together of the ‘threads of memory’. The first book ends with a poem ‘I Weave Back To You’, a reference to the woven baskets she has created from strips of her grandmothers letters, also featured on covers of the three chapbooks: 

I weave your words        your words         from these records
this basket of words        I weave back      to you. (29; vol. 1)

and continues later in Book 2.‘Haunting. Thread Offering /For My Children’ is a reminder to them:

                                 gather what you can as they appear
weave them gently          straight to your roots        let them
divine their way in       love them (35)

This chapbook begins by describing a way of being that is: 

                                                                                 open to uncanny                 recognition in unanticipated places where the spectres of colonialism
are acutely felt and known/      alive     and troubling/          repeating-
unending; this is unfinished business conjured to investigate history’s
gaps/ silences / absences/ and active erasures (5; vol. 2)

In the large section that follows, the poet offers an ‘Ode to Poles/Apart Tracking’, an ekphrasis tribute to the 2011 Video-Installation by fellow artist, Rea. This poem viscerally channels the personality, the fear felt by a young Aboriginal woman trying to escape from her life of servitude as a domestic.

/ on slaved-foot she fled / foreboding bush all charred-dark-deep
magnetic moon on valleys steep strange shadows trick torment […]
crouched in fear her hands clutch throat to silence (15; vol. 2)

She also includes archival letters and extracts, relating to other girls known as ‘absconders’. These claims are painfully refuted in ‘Spectres of Colonialism’. Restless suffering spirits, she calls ‘everywhere-ghost’, now wander without a home:

everywhere shadows                           unsettle reside
uncanny lament                                           mourn occupy
carry on song-line                                        cement in gut
flicker imagining                                     eyes pried shut (32; vol. 2) 

In Book 3, ‘Blood Memory’, Harkin prepares us with

WARNING | some blood-memory lessons should begin with a slow and
deep inhale knowing in that moment before exhale where this archival-poetic journey might never end the next breath may clot, won’t feel
so easy. (7)

The poem ‘Whitewash/Brainwash’ is about re-membering the lived experience of assimilation. It follows a protagonist who has gained exemption from the hardships of life under the South Australia Aborigines Act, but at the cost of denying blood ties and tribal culture. She must stay strong and know:

where to hide stories. through a fabric threaded and woven
with invisible places where no-other can see.      or would
know where to look like how to receive messages      that keep
her heart open and beating strong […]
think to listen. (26; vol. 3)

The poem ‘Blood Sonnet Chronicles’ details the tragic lives of three girls from the archive, who were forcibly removed from their families. On a more up-beat note, ‘A Domestic’s Waltz’ evokes a moment they may have shared together:

I wash dishes
you lean in
start a gentle rock
to and fro
side by side
deep in suds we hum
a slow

in dreams I go back to my home

you waltz (30; vol. 2)

The book ends with a letter, ‘Dear Nanna’, a reply from Harkin to her grandmother:

                                                                                         now in this
moment before exhale where this archival poetic journey feels
like it won’t begin or end            I stop            listen to my blood
happy to be home            breathe. (33; vol. 3)

The poet describes her work as an ‘archival-poetic journey’. But she takes us on a bumpy ride as we are asked to confront this assemblage of forceful poetics, juxtaposed with some shocking historical extracts from the State records.

Harkin’s work is always deliberately provocative. She aims to unsettle, urging us to listen and reflect: to re-imagine the real story, the legacy of suffering behind the colonial language. Archival-Poetics is a strikingly original work in which the artist/poet reaffirms the truth about Aboriginal history: how it lives on in stories and small memories passed down through generations, not in official archives.

Brenda Saunders is a Wiradjuri writer and artist living in Sydney. She is an active member of FNAWN (First Nations Aboriginal Writers Network and is a mentor for Black Cockatoo, the Emerging Indigenous Poets site at Verity La. Brenda has written three poetry books and her recent collection, ‘Inland Sea’, is ready for a publisher. Her poems and reviews appear in anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry JournalOverland, Southerly, Westerly and Plumwood Mountain. She has won several awards including the 2014 Scanlon Book Prize (Australian Poetry), the 2018 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Prize (Queensland Poetry) and the Joanne Burns Award for Prose Poetry (Spineless Wonders). 

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